Pia Sundhage aims to bring Sweden its first World Cup title

Pia Sundhage aims to bring Sweden its first World Cup title

Published Dec. 17, 2014 3:56 p.m. ET

It was typical Pia. Named as FIFA Women's Coach of the Year at the Ballon d'Or gala in January 2013, Pia Sundhage strode on stage and promptly burst out into song: Bob Dylan's "If Not For You."

Sundhage had come into the United States women's national team job singing. No joke: At the first team meeting, following a failed 2007 Women's World Cup campaign that had left the team seething, she began by belting out "The Times, They Are A Changin.'"

Slowly, she restored harmony to a deeply divided team. She reintegrated ostracized goalkeeper Hope Solo, whose public criticism of coach Greg Ryan's decision to play Brianna Scurry in goal for that fateful semifinal against Brazil opened up deep fissures in the team. Her laid-back attitude was the salve to a team that had grown too intense, too feisty. After the 2008 Olympic gold medal, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati got down on one knee in the locker room and proposed to Sundhage that she extend her stay in the job.

Over five years, she sang and sang -- to the players, to the media, to the fans. Along the way, the USA won the Olympic gold medal twice and reached the final of the 2011 Women's World Cup, only to lose it to Japan on penalties. That made her the most successful head coach in the history of this storied program.


She left the USA in Sept. 2012 to return home to Sweden. The players gave her a guitar. So, before her final game, she sang them "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover" and, of course, "Leaving On A Jet Plane."

The players answered with "You Are My Sunshine."

Sundhage has always been a colorful personality. She grew up in a small town in Sweden where she thought she was the only girl in the world who liked to play soccer. When she was 9, a sympathetic coach gave her a fake boy's name, Pelle, just so she could play on his team, since there was no soccer for girls. By the time she was 15, she was on the women's national team, where she would star for 21 years. As a manager, she remained outgoing and outspoken. When President George W. Bush invited her to the White House following the 2008 Olympics, she declined: She disagreed with his politics.

After embarking on a winding managerial career, she turned the USA around, modernizing the team to adapt to a quickly changing women's game. Within the parameters of its long-standing 4-4-2 system, she had introduced a little more fluidity and appreciation for possession.

But when her country called her to ask if she would coach Sweden, ahead of Women's Euro 2013 on home soil, she couldn't say no. Sweden, which will face the USA in the group stage, is one of the powers of women's soccer. But all they've ever won is the 1984 Women's European Championship. They placed third at the 2011 Women's World Cup and were eliminated by Germany, the eventual champions, at last year's Women's Euro.

There is a real challenge there for Sundhage to reach the top of the mountain of the women's game with a team that has been close, but has never quite gotten there. They have been to every World Cup, and are currently ranked fifth in the world. Yet their best finish to date is second place.

Theirs is an experienced team though, led by star striker Lotta Schelin. Behind her, Caroline Seger, Therese Sjogran, Nilla Fischer and Kosovare Asllani are players to watch. The latter is a promising young player who will make her World Cup debut.

Sweden are ready to make a run, that much is clear. They won Group 4 of European qualifying at a canter, claiming victory in all 10 of their games and scoring 32 goals while conceding just one. But they were denied a seed for the draw for the World Cup, to Sundhage's consternation. As if it were scripted that way, their little ball was pulled from the bowl and lumped in with the USA, Australia -- no slouches either -- and Nigeria -- the strongest side in Africa -- to make up the lethal Group D.

So Sundhage now knows that the task has grown even taller. Following the draw, she turned to USA head coach Jill Ellis, who is a friend and former assistant, and told her just what she thought of her bad fortune. "It was actually a Swedish comment," Ellis recalled to the press. "I don't know if I can repeat it. Let's just say it was a colorful expression."

If nothing else, Sundhage will be colorful. After all these years, she has hardly developed a filter. "Some of the players are boring," she recently told BBC Radio of her new team. "But that's fine."

They are a capable and dangerous team, after all. And nobody could ever be expected to be half as interesting as Sundhage anyway.